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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Creative Connections

Students find intersections between the arts and engineering.

By Kathryn LoConte Lapierre

As Dartmouth celebrates the Year of the Arts, marking the 50th anniversary of the Hopkins Center for the Arts, nine engineering majors describe how they bring art and engineering together.


Major: Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Arts Focus: Creative Process

Nora Hodgson ’13
VIEWPOINT: “I bring my art into other aspects of my life,” says Nora Hodgson ’13. Photograph by John Sherman.

My engineering focus is in product design. My focus for studio art is on the creative process. I really enjoy drawing and drafting because of the steps in the process. I look at a still life initially and do a rough sketch, then look again and go back and refine the lines. I bring my art into other aspects of my life. As a study break I’ll sit and draw a coffee cup that’s sitting on the table.

Engineering focuses on ideas and processes that can sometimes seem very technical, and you think of studio art as being much more artistic and free flowing. But there’s a lot of process and diligence that comes with making a piece of art that I think is very particular to engineering as well. The two come together very nicely.

Engineers benefit a lot by having an art background because it’s another way to tackle a situation or assignment. In a product design class you have to think of a lot of different points of view. You have to think about it as a work of art, because you’re not just making some clunky piece of machinery, you’re making something that somebody is going to want to interact with. Art is an enforcement of everything you should be learning in engineering.

Watch Nora talk about her artistic focus on the creative process.


Major: Engineering with a Minor in Studio Art
Arts Focus: Design

Chris Magoon ’13
PERSPECTIVE: “Most engineers could use more art in their lives,” says Chris Magoon ’13. Photograph by John Sherman.

I’m interested in mechanical engineering, the prototyping, the design of simple components and mechanical devices. I’ve always liked to make stuff and experiment with different designs. My dad’s a mechanical engineer and my mom’s an artist. The kitchen table would be covered with projects, whether engineering or art. We had airplanes being made, and paintings, drawings, and boats. It was an environment where anything was possible.

I’ve enjoyed every single class I’ve taken in studio art. Most engineers could use more art in their lives. Simply being able to sketch things out and understand how to draw simple perspective drawings and convey your ideas helps a lot. You have to not just plan how a product is going to work, but also how is it going to look so you wind up with an aesthetically pleasing device.

The connections stand out in sculpture, where you have to design things that have to stand up on their own without a base or wires holding them up. In both of my sculpture classes the first assignment has been like, here’s a pile of cardboard, make something extremely tall out of it. It had to be twice our height using very little material. The engineering aspects that go into that are pretty crazy.

The technical aspect of printmaking—understanding the pressures that go into plates, printing them, the technical process with acids, all this crazy stuff happening at the molecular level—is almost chemical engineering. The attention to detail, the precise etching, relate back to engineering. Printmaking is such a process-driven class. So much repetition goes into making plates and printing them. There’s a huge amount of technical stuff you have to learn for printmaking.

I’ve been working on long-board design and construction. Understanding all of the engineering and art that goes into that has been a huge adventure.

Longboard designed by Chris Magoon
Longboard designed by Chris Magoon ’13. Photograph courtesy of Chris Magoon.

Watch Chris talk about his artistic focus on sculpture and design, and his dream job: longboard designer.


Major: Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Arts Focus: Architecture, Sculpture

Wouter Zwart ’14
DIMENSIONS: Wouter Zwart ’14 likes working in 3D. Photograph by John Sherman.

I was determined not to become an engineer. I thought it was too constraining, and I wanted to travel and have flexibility in my schedule. Then I got involved in Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering and traveled to Rwanda. I saw a practical application for my interests.

Taking engineering and studio art at the same time is a good balance of classes. My focus in studio art so far has been in architecture and sculpture; I really like working with 3D space.

In architecture you balance what you can do in reality and what you want to do with space creatively. You bring the two together. Engineering is analytical and problem-based, but sculpture is similar in approach.

Sculpture by Wouter Zwart
Sculpture in 3D by Wouter Zwart ’14. Photograph courtesy of Wouter Zwart.

You have an idea in your mind and you have to think how to bring this idea into physical reality. You have to create something that functions for a person or for a purpose. In both disciplines there’s a similar mindset in how you think spatially.

Watch Wouter talk about his artistic focus on architecture and sculpture.


Major: Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Arts Focus: Photography, Sculpture

Sam Worth ’13
FOCUS: “The camera is able to transform what we often dismiss as the everyday mundane into something beautiful,” says Sam Worth ’13. Photograph by John Sherman.

My focus is on the creative and innovative aspects of engineering. I also wanted to have a hands-on, purely creative process to complement my engineering study. Studio art fulfilled that.

Engineering has a large aspect of trial and error and refinement. The first iteration is rarely going to be the best one. In modern photography, manipulating a picture—the setting, lighting, aperture, frame—over and over again to make it say something has a lot of overlap with the constant restructuring and rethinking of problems involved in engineering.

My sculpture class connected the most to engineering. Sculpture is in some ways a reduced, more intuitive form of engineering design. It’s taking a space or object and making it functional in a way that people wouldn’t expect.

My final sculpture project was a three-point structure. We had to pick a body position that wouldn’t normally support itself. I chose diving to catch a baseball.

We were given two 2x4s and had to build a structure to support the position. Only a square 1/4-inch could touch the ground at each of the three support points. There were extreme design challenges to tackle. It was similar to engineering in that way, discovering how to best use limited materials to create a functional and aesthetically pleasing product.

Studio art has enhanced my sense of design intuition and has taught me to appreciate the importance of both function and form in engineering.


Major: Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Arts Focus: Creative process

Caroline Steffen ’14
CREATIVITY: “Whether it is an engineering project or a painting, I love the fact that it’s never actually done,” says Caroline Steffen ’14. Photograph by John Sherman.

I was born interested in art. When I was little I would play with anything that I could get my hands on to create art. When I was applying to college, somebody suggested to me that I look into engineering. I e-mailed Professor Collier before I visited Dartmouth. I got to sit down with one of his ENGS 21 groups. For me it was a very big light bulb moment, seeing the creative passion.

I always thought that engineering and art clashed because one person is the very logical engineer doing equations and the other person is the very out-there artist. For me it was kind of a bizarre thought to do both. When I got to Dartmouth I realized that there’s actually a ton of people doing both.

A lot of what I love about engineering and studio art is the creative process. Whether it is an engineering project or a painting, I love the fact that it’s never actually done. Going back and looking at it, figuring out what you don’t like about it, getting critiques, and then reworking. The whole cycle is a huge commonality between engineering and studio art. It’s that process that really gets me thinking.

I find myself learning things in my engineering classes that will really make a difference in my art. Similarly, learning to think creatively and outside the box in classes like sculpture or architecture has made a huge difference in what I do in engineering. They play off of each other so well.

Architectural drawing by Caroline Steffen
Architectural drawing by Caroline Steffen ’14. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Steffen.

I read a quote the other day. It said, “Eventually you’re going to connect the dots, but for now do what excites you.” I read it and thought, that’s me. I’ve always loved engineering and art and eventually I know that it’ll end up connecting.

Watch Caroline talk about her focus on the creative process and her interests in engineering and architecture and studio art.


Majors: Engineering, Music
Arts Focus: Music

Liliana Ma ’14
HARMONY: Liliana Ma ’14, at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, finds release in playing music. Photograph by John Sherman.

Liliana Ma performing with the Dartmouth West Coast Swing Club
Liliana Ma ’14 performing with the Dartmouth West Coast Swing Club. Photograph courtesy of Liliana Ma.

My research is in biomedical engineering and is a collaboration with Thayer and the Geisel School of Medicine. Using computer simulations of a nuclear event, we compare biodosimetry methods for measuring radiation levels in people. I was drawn to biomedical engineering partially because it is the most related to medicine. I’ve always wanted to do medicine.

I play piano and violin and am in the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra (DSO). I’m also involved in dance on campus. I’m the vice president of the Dartmouth West Coast Swing Club.

There is scientific research being done on how human bodies respond to music. While I don’t think that consciously music was a way to balance engineering, dancing and music make me happy. The engineering major is a lot of work and the music major is a good amount of work, but it is on a totally different side of the spectrum. I really enjoy playing music, and it’s a release in that way.

Watch Liliana talk about connections between engineering and the arts and about her artistic focus on music and dance.


Majors: Engineering Modified with Chemistry, Music
Arts Focus: Music Composition

Kristen Colwell ’13
INSTRUMENTAL: Kristen Colwell ’13, who sings and plays piano and French horn, calls composition the design side of music. Photograph by John Sherman.

Chemical engineering and musical composition are a lot more similar than people realize. You have an initial idea, and that bit of it is inspiration. Once you have that idea, you have to see if it’s good. You have to ask yourself how to develop it, how to make a finished product.

People think of composers as this sort of lofty echelon of people who are walking through fields humming things, and inspiration hits them, and they run back home and write everything down really fast. A few people have done that. But in general what most people do is take an idea and turn it upside down, and turn it the other way, and find ways for instruments to work well together.

How do you connect a melody and a counter melody? What sort of chords can go behind this or that? How do you get from point A to point B? Transitions can be really difficult. A lot of it is actually sitting down with pen and paper and staring at something and saying, “What if I try this?” It’s a lot more like a process of creative design than the ethereal process that people seem to think it is. The process is remarkably similar for music composition and any sort of engineering you want to do.

Watch Kristen talk about the intersection of engineering, chemistry, and music.


Major: Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Arts Focus: Design

Christine Bettencourt ’13
VISUAL AID: Christine Bettencourt ’13, at Dartmouth’s Black Family Visual Arts Center, articulates ideas through art. Photograph by John Sherman.

Because I took Professor Robbie’s design thinking class, I’m interested in human-centered product design and human factors research, in going out and finding how people use things and why they do certain things. For example, when companies started doing self-serve gas pumps, everyone would get out of their car to pump, but then they’d have to go back to their car. And the question was, why? Did they forget their debit card? No, it’s because they forgot their glasses. The pumps didn’t have fonts big enough for people to read. It’s little things like that that interest me, trying to find the real root of a problem and the things that don’t work.

I think that engineers are well served by having an art background. It goes both ways as well. I’m taking a sculpture class and I’m working on a project that has a water component. I’m trying to figure out how to plug a tub, and all of the materials that I’ve tried so far are not working. I’m spilling water everywhere. And really trying to figure out how materials work is important and that’s a connection to engineering. There’s the whole debate over form before function, but the connection for me is trying to find the right balance in it.

I’m all for the liberal arts education. I don’t think that engineers should just be engineers. They should know how to write and convey ideas and tell stories and do all the different things that you wouldn’t normally think engineers would need to know how to do. If you have this great idea and you can’t articulate it to somebody, then it’s lost. What better way is there to show that than visually?

Watch Christine talk about her artistic focus on architecture, sculpture, and drawing.


Major: Engineering Modified with Studio Art
Arts Focus: Photography

Drew Jankowski ’13
EXPOSURES: “The digital camera is an engineering feat within itself,” says Drew Jankowski ’13. Photograph by John Sherman.

The brainstorming in engineering, making mock-ups, and prototyping is the same process in art, just a different outlet. In photography you go out with your camera and play around with different framing, exposures, and subjects. Photography has a technical aspect. Developing photos in the darkroom has a very distinct process. You expose the paper for a certain amount of time to get the right tones, then develop it, fix it, and wash it for a certain amount of time. Repeating that process over and over has a lot of application in engineering. Being able to ingrain a process is really helpful in both fields.

I’d like a job in user interface design for a software company, web-based service, or design firm. Art and engineering have tangible applications for that field. It’s the process of identifying a problem that you want to frame, coming up with a list of possible solutions, narrowing it down, taking the best ones, and combining them.

Watch Drew talk about his artistic focus in photography.

—Kathryn LoConte Lapierre is the senior editor at Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Features

Tags: curriculum, design, projects, students

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